Prester John

Medieval depiction of Prester John

Many fairy tales and legends told today can trace their origins back in the Middle Ages, where fantastical stories of dragons and witches and fairies were told and often held to be true by the superstitious. The stories have lived on perhaps because of their outlandishness, and remain popular to this day. However, one of the most popular legends during a large portion of the medieval era in Europe was the legend of Prester John, a much more plausible myth than the existence of unicorns or dragons. While the legend was ultimately proven to be (mostly)untrue, millions of Europeans knew of Prester John and many believed the stories about him true. In fact, the story managed to spur entire expeditions dedicated to finding the mysterious Christian king Prester John far to the East. Some compare its popularity and importance in medieval times to that of the story of King Arthur[1].Part of what fascinates me so much about this legend that rarely appears in modern media is how it reflects what the Europeans thought of the East and the people who inhabited the East. Very little was known about the East and the Christians who lived outside of Europe, so the general opinion of Europeans on the East was shaped by the legends of Prester John.

The legend of Prester John originates during the Crusades, when Europeans came into much closer contact with the Middle East than they were used to. While searching for any possible allies against the Muslims, a rumor surfaced about an enemy that had recently defeated the Muslims in a great battle[2].This enemy was actually the Khitans, but Christians interpreted this news as evidence for a Christian kingdom in the East and a potential ally. The Pope was informed of a “Presbiter Johannes” in 1145, who later became known as Prester John. What made Prester John famous across Europe, however, was the letter delivered to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus in 1165 supposedly from Prester John himself. The letter is a remarkable piece of medieval literature,and does not fit into any of the norms at the time for diplomatic letters or most writing in general. The letter starts out wishing the emperor well, but then immediately begins boasting about the power of his kingdom and the wonders that it contains, including mythological creatures such as griffins and giants and a spring that grants immortality. He describes his essay as a utopia; “All riches, such as are upon the world, our Magnificence possesses in superabundance.With us, no one lies, for he who speaks a lie is thenceforth regarded as dead”[3].He also boasts about his own piety (somewhat ironically). Clearly, this letter was faked by a European, using European legends and ideas in order to fabricate a kingdom that sounded foreign and exotic. However, the letter essentially went viral, and hundreds of versions were published and read across Europe. It is not entirely clear how much of the letter Europeans believed during the 12th and 13th century, although scholars agree that they did believe in Prester John as a king living in the East[4],even if they did not believe in the many riches and magical beasts he brags about.

Toghrul

About a century after the original Prester John letter, theories about Prester John’s kingdom began to change. Originally, Prester John was believed to rule a kingdom in India, like the letter claimed. Soon, two theories began to emerge as the most popular. One of the most popular was the idea that the Mongolians came from Prester John’s kingdom. New perspectives on the East like the account of Marco Polo displayed the East as a much more sophisticated place than the Europeans originally imagined. Instead of the barbarous peoples that were assumed to lie beyond western civilization, Europeans were exposed to the rich and powerful cultures to the far East, the most important being Mongol-controlled China. Because of the widespread belief in Prester John, Marco Polo himself knew about Prester John and recalls the stories he heard about him from the Mongolians. In fact,Marco Polo does not spend any time debating whether this figure is Prester John or not; he has no doubt that the person he discusses is the same Prester John in all the legends from Europe. Instead he refers to the figure as either Prester John or his Mongolian name, Un Khan[5]. Un Khan is also known as Toghril, and ruled as the most powerful khan before Temujin united the Mongolian tribes and became Chingis Khan. Marco Polo claims that the kingdom ruled by Toghril’s descendants was a Christian one ruled over by the Mongols, who allowed every religion to exist. The Mongols were also an enemy of the Muslims during this time, so they fit into the narrative that Prester John had won victories during the Crusades. In fact, the French even tried to form an alliance with the Mongolians, ultimately to no avail. In addition to the Mongols, the other main theory was that Prester John resided in Ethiopia[6],a Christian kingdom that had been cut off from Europe for years. While Ethiopia was hardly the East, the Europeans grouped it with the rest of the“non-western” nations. After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, Ethiopia was widely considered to be the kingdom of Prester John, and gradually the legend faded until it was no longer a commonly believed myth.

Mapping out the kingdom of Prester John

Ultimately, Prester John is an interesting story because of how its popularity faded away as more knowledge of the East was available to the West. Before much was known about what was East of Persia, fantastical stories ran rampant throughout Europe about savage land sand peoples. But once more knowledge of these regions was spread, myths like Prester John became less prevalent because they were less likely to be real or important. But while the myth lasted, it shaped the European view of the East.


[1] Brewer, Keagan. 2015. Prester John: the legend and its sources, 1

[2] Brewer, 6

[3] The Letter of Prester John: http://www.graveworm.com/occult/texts/pjohn.html

[4] Brewer, 2

[5] Polo, Marco. 2006. The travels of Marco Polo. New York: Cosimo Classics, 79

[6] Nowell, Charles E. “The Historical Prester John.” Speculum 28, no. 3 (1953): 437

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